Rich Bastards, Poor Bastards

It looks like we’re in for another round of that tedious old debate about whether the rich in New Zealand are heroes or whether they are crooks.
This invariably turns into a moralistic whine-fest. 
  
Deborah Coddington kicks it off, ably assisted by David Farrar.   Danyl at the DimPost puts the contra view here. 
Where to start?  Well, I think Deborah makes some good points but she loses me when she talks of “championing” the well off. 
Successful people, by definition, don’t sit around whining no-one is championing them.
Danyl’s arguments, on the other hand, hinge on that sour, four-letter reductivist word, “just”.  It is always a good idea, whenever you see the word deployed in this way, to think very carefully about what is actually being said. 
This approach involves focusing on just one aspect of what went into someone’s success and implying its presence somehow invalidates the whole thing.
John Key and Sam Morgan were successful because they were just lucky, apparently. 
Well, no.  Other New Zealanders also set up web sites which copied eBay.  The fact you probably can’t name any tells its own story. 
John Key was part of a relatively lucky generation but unless he was a generation of one, which doesn’t seem very likely,  so too were a hell of a lot of other people.
(I’m not out to “champion” either of those two, btw – I’m citing them because others have. )
 
But I think we need to get a bit less prone to label all our more financially blessed fellow Kiwis as charlatans or silver-spooners. 

It seems odd to bewail our poor economic performance over the past 40 years and then in the next breath badmouth everyone who does do well for themselves.  

Doing well as a country, earning enough to pay for the lifestyle we think we deserve (and as a country we do have very high expectations) means learning to get a lot more comfortable with the fact some people are going to be better off than others. 
I don’t think we need a culture which “champions” wealth.  
But we do need one which does not automatically seek to pull down those who have wealth-generating abilities.  At present this is the default setting of all too many New Zealanders and, apart from being nasty and envious,  it is quite destructive. 


4 thoughts on “Rich Bastards, Poor Bastards

  1. But we do need one which does not automatically seek to pull down those who have wealth-generating abilities.

    Don't you think it would be worth distinguishing between people who create wealth only for themselves and their clients, but destroy it for others – say, currency traders – from the likes of Sam Morgan?

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  2. John Key and Sam Morgan were successful because they were just lucky, apparently.

    I argue that Key and Morgan are also very smart and very hard working no less than five times, so I feel you could be a bit smarter and work a bit harder when framing my argument.

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  3. @ Giovanni: In practice, rather difficult.

    If you've got money in a KiwiSaver fund or even a bank deposit, the chances are at least some of the interest/return you're getting on it is from playing the currency markets.

    More generally – can you actually say Trademe didn't have its destructive side? Someone in the newspaper business could well make a case for that.

    @ Danyl: Yeah, you do mention that five times. I'm not sure that's really your main argument though, is it? You then go on to minimise those factors – those people had “huge” (your word) advantages.

    You then chuck in phrases like “wider, parasitical business elite” – not a fair or accurate description of NZ business at all.

    Then there's the straw men – straw barn doors, in fact – towards the end of your first piece:

    “There’s nothing moral about the market allocating more wealth to people who are privileged and lucky. This is mostly what the free market does, and it’s a message the left has failed to communicate to the wider public who tend to buy into the myth of the meritocratic level playing-field.”

    From the bottom: I've *never* heard anyone put the “level playing field” argument about individuals. About the desire to make rules for business as close to a level playing field as possible, yes.

    More importantly – the market as a morality play?
    Although I know of that argument I've never heard anyone seriously put it forward. It's a trope left wingers trot out and try to attribute to those of us on the blue side of the political spectrum.

    Deborah's column doesn't make that claim. although I'll concede it can certainly can be interpreted that way.

    But it can equally be interpreted to mean markets are simply more efficient, and that if you want to grow wealth overall you have to allow those who are good at it to prosper.

    FWIW, my own view is markets, capitalism if you like, is a signals mechanism, and a particularly efficient one.

    But as a signals mechanism, it is largely amoral. [NOT immoral].

    Wrote more about that some time ago over here:

    http://hosking.blogspot.com/2005/08/reform-where-to-from-here.html

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  4. If you've got money in a KiwiSaver fund or even a bank deposit, the chances are at least some of the interest/return you're getting on it is from playing the currency markets.

    Still doesn't tell me how that's “creating wealth” other than for me. And yes I'm sure TradeMe has hurt some people – Trade&Exchange, for one thing – but it has also substantially created a service where one didn't exist before.

    FWIW, my own view is markets, capitalism if you like, is a signals mechanism, and a particularly efficient one.

    But as a signals mechanism, it is largely amoral. [NOT immoral].

    In principle, possibly yes. In practice… have you live under a rock for the last five years?

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